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Biden allies rally behind him with a public show of support as he spends family time at Camp David

WASHINGTON (AP) — While President Joe Biden was out of sight at Camp David Sunday spending time with family, prominent Democrats rallied with a public show of unwavering support for his campaign following his unsteady debate performance and growing anxiety over whether he should remain in the White House race.

“I do not believe that Joe Biden has a problem leading for the next four years,” said one close ally, Democratic Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina. “Joe Biden should continue to run on his record.” Yet the stark illustration of the Democratic angst was seen in words from former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who served for more than two decades with Biden in the Senate and called the debate “a disaster from which Biden cannot recover.”

Biden’s allies blanketed the Sunday talk shows and conceded that the president’s showing against Republican Donald Trump on Thursday night had ranged from subpar to bad. They encouraged voters to see past the moment, look at Biden’s long-term record and focus on Trump’s myriad falsehoods during the 90-minute debate.

Privately, though, Biden’s campaign has been working to tamp down concerns over the debate on CNN where Biden sounded raspy and at times was unable to finish sentences. The campaign has spent the days since then working to keep donors and surrogates on board.

After a New York fundraising event Saturday, Biden traveled with his family to Camp David, the presidential retreat outside Washington. The previously planned trip was also being used to take family photographs for the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August.

Even before the debate, the age of the 81-year-old Democratic president has been a liability with voters, and the prime-time faceoff appeared to reinforce the public’s deep-seated concerns before perhaps the largest audience he will garner in the four months until Election Day. CNN said more than 51 million people watched the debate.

Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Georgia Democrat and Baptist minister, said there had been “more than a few Sundays when I wish I had preached a better sermon,” relating the experience to Biden’s debate performance.

“But after the sermon was over it was my job to embody the message, to show up for the people that I serve. And that’s what Joe Biden has been doing his entire life,” Warnock said, echoing the message from other supporters that Biden had a bad debate, but a lifetime of good governance.

Warnock, like Clyburn and others, pivoted to Trump’s many falsehoods during the debate — falsehoods Biden and the debate moderators often failed to fact check from the stage — including about the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters, immigration and the outcome of the 2020 election.

“Whenever his mouth was moving, he was lying,” Warnock said of Trump.

Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., dodged questions about Trump’s false claims and praised Trump’s performance while accusing the national news media of hiding a debilitating condition.

Trump “was strong. He was clear. He was coherent,” Graham said.

He called Biden “compromised” and said “the media is covering” it up.

Behind closed doors, a sense of concern was simmering among some Democrats that Biden’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee were not taking seriously enough the impact of Biden’s performance.

The DNC chairman, Jaime Harrison, and Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, held a Saturday afternoon call with dozens of committee members across the country — a group of some of the most influential members of the party — where they offered rosy assessment of the path forward and no opportunity for others on the call to respond with questions.

Multiple committee members on the call, most granted anonymity to talk about the private discussion, described feeling like they were being asked to ignore a serious predicament.

“There were a number of things that could have been said in addressing the situation. But we didn’t get that. We were being gaslit,” said Joe Salazar, an elected DNC member from Colorado, who was on the call. Gaslit is a term for being manipulated or misled.

Harkin suggested that Democratic senators in pivotal races and “maybe all incumbent Democratic Senators should pen a letter to Biden asking him to release his delegates and step aside so the convention can choose a new candidate,” according to an email to supporters that was obtained by The Associated Press and referenced first in Iowa journalist Julie Gammack’s column on Saturday, Iowa Potluck.

“This is a perilous time, and is more important than the ego or desires of Joe Biden to stay as President,” Harkin concluded.

And Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md. described “very honest, serious and rigorous conversations taking place at every level of our party … about what to do.”

Advocates such as Clyburn, whose support was critical to Biden’s South Carolina primary win in 2020, pointed to the president’s North Carolina rally on Friday when he appeared energized and animated, a sharp pivot from the night before.

“I know I’m not a young man — to state the obvious,” Biden said at the rally. “Folks, I don’t walk as easy as I used to. I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to. I don’t debate as well as I used to.”

“But I know what I do know: I know how to tell the truth. I know right from wrong. And I know how to do this job. I know how to get things done. And I know like millions of Americans know: When you get knocked down, you get back up,” he said to rousing cheers.

Biden’s team has reported that the campaign amassed over $33 million since Thursday, $26 million from smaller dollar donations, including roughly half from first-time donors this cycle. The campaign said Thursday had been its best “grassroots” fundraising day, while Friday, the day after the debate, was its second best.

Trump aides reported that the Republican had raised more than $8 million Thursday evening alone.

Biden campaign communications director Michael Tyler said there had been no internal conversations “whatsoever” about Biden stepping aside, although he, too, acknowledged that the president had a “bad night” on stage.

Clyburn and Graham were on CNN’s “State of the Union and Warnock appeared on NBC’s ”Meet the Press. Raskin spoke to MSNBC.

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Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa. Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in New York, and Matthew Daly, Zeke Miller, Seung Min Kim and Michelle L. Price contributed to this report.

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This story has been corrected to reflect that Sen. Warnock’s first name is Raphael, not Rafael.

Thomas Beaumont And Colleen Long, The Associated Press